Outsider's view of U.S. financial drama

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: The economic and banking crises are not just making headlines here. They're making headlines around the world. Reinout van Wagtendonk is US correspondent for Radio Netherlands. He is based in Western Massachusetts. Now for you, I wonder which particular debacle you've been focusing on this week.

REINOUT VAN WAGTENDONK: Well, of course, the economic crisis, the AIG bonuses, specifically, the response yesterday in the House of Representatives is very fast, a measure to tax the bonuses away with a tax rate of 90 percent. My editors immediately called me and said, "A 90 percent tax rate in the United States? That is so un-American."

MULLINS: Meaning what? What's--?

VAN WAGTENDONK: That taxes are so un-American because certainly under President Bush, but in general in the United States, raising taxes is something that no politician ever will own up to. So in this case, they do, so it really must indicate that this is a very special occasion and people are really angry.

MULLINS: Okay, so that's what was noteworthy for your audience in the Netherlands. We also have on the line, and I'm going to ask the same question of you, Natan. Natan Guttman, who's Washington correspondent for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. Your main angle for the week was what?

NATAN GUTTMAN: Again, AIG, that was our main story this week, mainly because Israelis are also surprised and shocked and dismayed when they hear that these huge bonuses go to executives that actually failed in their job. And I think Israelis also see this story resonating over there at home also. Israel is also undergoing a financial crisis. There are also stories about companies going bankrupt, while their executives are still leaving with a golden parachute, so definitely, this story resonates very well over there.

MULLINS: You're saying that that's happening in Israel as well, the golden parachutes?

GUTTMAN: In a smaller scale, this definitely happens over there too.

MULLINS: What are you writing about the disgraced financier, Bernard Madoff?

GUTTMAN: We're trying to report that through the aspect of how it will affect us, the people in Israel, and it already is affecting both by institutions in Israel losing their money, and philanthropists over here funneling less money to Israel, just because they lost their money with Madoff.

MULLINS: And how about the fact that there are many people in the Jewish community here in the United States, many Jews who are upset at the fact that Madoff himself is Jewish, and that many of the victims of his scam were Jewish as well? To Israelis, is that part of the equation, or is that separate from the financial part?

GUTTMAN: No, it's definitely part of the story. In a way, Israelis are always concerned of having a bad name around the world, of the Jews having a bad name around the world, and definitely when such a prominent Jewish financier gets into so much trouble, that can't be helpful.

MULLINS: Reinout, has your reporting for your audience of Radio Netherlands been substantially different? I mean, what's your take?

VAN WAGTENDONK: Yeah, no not substantially different in the Madoff case at all. We also took, as part of the angle, the fact that he stayed out of jail so long. There were definitely questions about measures of crime and punishment for people who are very rich, even though they may have become very rich through criminal means, and people who are not rich, who shoplift, and then immediately go to jail, don't have the opportunity to stay in the penthouse. So that was in the Netherlands something that people asked about. How is it possible that this guy, he basically said he did it, why is he still free? So that did become an important angle.

MULLINS: Natan Guttman, I'm especially interested in how the people of Israel are viewing President Obama's overture to Iran, Iran of course being of special interest to Israelis, many of whom view Iran as a serious threat to their country. How did you handle that story for your audience in Israel?

GUTTMAN: Definitely, this is one of the major things we're covering here, is since the elections, this shift in policy towards Iran. It's of top interest for our viewers and listeners in Israel. When President Obama took office, some in Israel were skeptical, were wary of the fact that he might be too soft on Iran, and I think people are starting to gain some more confidence in this road that he's offering forward.

MULLINS: That's interesting, because I would think that they might see this move, this overture, as proof of their fears, that he would use a soft love instead of a fist.

GUTTMAN: Well I think Israelis, and maybe this is true more to policymakers than to the ordinary people, Israelis understand that things have changed in the United States. And even though initially they would want a tough guy to deal with Iran, preferably militarily, they understand that this isn't the situation right now. And they're very pleased to see someone who is engaged and even if this engagement isn't in the way of diplomacy, it still shows that the administration over here understands the urgency of the situation, and that's why Israelis follow it very closely.

MULLINS: I'm curious as to whether either of you is writing about Barack Obama's appearance on Jay Leno last night.

VAN WAGTENDONK: My story was, he went to California over the heads of the critical news media and away from politics, talking to Jay Leno directly to the American public, to show, "Yes, I still am in control and I do talk your language, and I do share your outrage about AIG." A great podium, a TV show like that, for him to do that.

MULLINS: You're saying that he portrayed it as kind of a populist move, as a sort of a good thing, or indifferent or what?

VAN WAGTENDONK: Yeah, a populist move and probably a smart thing to do.

MULLINS: Natan, how about you?

GUTTMAN: Well I tried to sell this idea to my editors, but I guess there are some different priorities over there anyhow.

MULLINS: Than late night TV in America?

GUTTMAN: Right. They told me, "Why don't you mention it in one of your stories?" But there's big news going on in Israel, coalition talks, reports about the Gaza War. There's bigger news than late night TV, I guess.

MULLINS: All right, thank you very much, Natan Guttman of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and Reinout van Wagtendonk of Radio Netherlands. Thank you both for speaking to us. By the way, we will analyze the President's overture to Iran, which we spoke about, in detail a little bit later in the show. Thank you both.